Minecraft is a fascinating “game”. I assume most of you have played it and for those of you who haven’t, I’ll give some short background. Because of the special nature of this “game,” it will remain impossible to fully engage the subject and make our way to anything of real Philosophical value in this short piece. For that reason, and pure enjoyments sake, I highly recommend giving this deviously addictive plaything a try.
Minecraft is a combination of an open, somewhat randomly constructed, world simulator offering a creativity space and a low key action adventure role playing game. Visually, it uses a low resolution style and the basic form of all things in the world is the “block” a 1 meter cube that can be made of various materials each with different properties. These cubes can be harvested in most cases and placed elsewhere in the world allowing the player to build with them. It can be played solo or on servers with others sharing a world. The default avatar of the player is Steve, a generally blank slate with no goals, back story, or vocalizations of any language. The majority of game-play is in the rich item crafting system wherein players can create tools, armor, weapons, and parts to build machines from. The most interesting thing about Minecraft is that there are no goals beyond those imported by the player. An achievement system is in place to guide the player toward some of the games features but these are by no means necessary to enjoy the “game”. If any true goal exists in the “game” its mere survival which is complicated by needing to find food and shelter from monster attacks. But even this is only a strongly suggested goal as death only results in a return to the spawn point and dropping your inventory on the ground (there is a mode with permanent death for those who need a greater challenge). That in a nutshell is Minecraft a “game” you decide how to play with.
But what does this have to do with Nietzsche? Simply put an avatar of humanity with no allegiance to nation, philosophy, morality, law, value, religion, or even worldly comfort is given a world of becoming filled with impermanence and loss on which to express his/her will to power (here we should note that the will to power for Nietzsche is more correctly understood as the desire to create or change). That avatar is left with no culture or power greater than themselves to guide them through the hardships that will come from the world itself. In fact, we see this even in the mechanics of the “game” as the player is never given an explanation of how to craft anything but the most basic of items and from there without looking outside the “game” the player must merely stumble onto the recipes for new items. This represents an experience of the world where in the player is left to there own devices to figure out how to overcome obstacles and achieve goals that they themselves set based solely on values they create. In other terms a “free spirit” as Nietzsche called them is set into a world devoid of the corrupting forces of history to exercise their “will to power” and overcome the hardships of that world. In the process of this we see the player become a philosopher assigning meaning and value to the world only to have it destroyed by uncaring forces.
The newly minted philosopher follows Nietzsche’s cycle of the world of being through Nihilism and into the world of becoming as the player builds first what they value only to see it destroyed and then assigning value to that which can not be destroyed and finally finding the joy of impermanence and valuing a world of becoming in which one can create and destroy. With nothing to hold the player/avatar back and few if any limits on there creativity they choose to engage and overcome hardships and challenges often of there own making. They choose what to value and come to celebrate there creation. The player and avatar combine to become a virtual Übermensch (German for “Overman”). Thus, in my opinion, Minecraft represents the best model of a Nietzschean philosophy trainer ever to have been conceived.
Without meaning to, I suspect, the creators have in part noticed this same features of our world which inspired Nietzsche and made room for our humanity to guide us through the rest. It is in large part the role of the philosopher to be the observer of the conditions both of the external world and their own internal states and this is one of the areas in which Nietzsche was truly exemplary. As such, it should be no surprise to us that given some basic elements of the world and an avatar capable of receiving us that we should see his work creep in to that medium, too. But what of that avatar? It is Steve’s distinct lack of personality that makes him such a perfect blank slate for us to project ourselves onto. This phenomena is know in film making as the “neutral mask” and it is one reason the stars of action movies tend to be distant or unemotional. With no cue to tell us what a characters emotional state is we will instinctively project our own feelings in that situation onto them. It is for this reason that Steve’s complete lack of any discernible personality allows us to slip into him so completely as to become a part of the philosophical process.
Many of you will have noticed my use of quotation marks when referring to Minecraft as a game. This is because in some ways Minecraft is less a game than a toy (no clear rules, goals, storytelling, etc.) but toy doesn’t seem to cover it either because, as we have seen, it is a Nietzschean sandbox of the free spirit. Can such a powerful tool be thought of as a toy? Can a game be more true of the world than it is fantasy and still remain a game? Was Minecraft ever a game and if so which characteristics made it such? I have no good answers here as Minecraft seems to defy definition by most of the standards I know for these categories. Perhaps that characteristic itself lends credence to the notion that Minecraft is more than any game before it true to the world Nietzsche hoped to show us.